The edicts of the Chinese communist party can be a strange mix of the frightening and the absurd. Despite the window dressing of democracy and lip service given to the 55 ethnic minorities of China, the ‘party’ makes the rules, changes the rules and enforces the rules. The latest rule change is that Chinese media and other sources are not allowed to make puns or indulge in the venerable tradition of wordplay using popular idioms.
For thousands of years Chinese people have been playing with their language. Thanks to a large amount of homophones it is possible to take common phrases and idioms and substitute characters with homophones to make a pun. This is an integral part of Chinese rhetoric and poetry. It shows wit and can be used to make a joke, sell a product or make a political point. The puns stick in the mind and soon go viral in the Zeitgeist.
It is no doubt this last use of wordplay that the authorities object to. The potential for making memorable slogans using a clever wordplay worries the party. In a bid to fend off any threat to their authority and their tight grip on the minds of the people the party has banned wordplay. This takes censorship to another level and risks making the totalitarian regime look plain ridiculous.
It is hard to listen and read every utterance both private and public. It is hard to read every news article, forum post and blog post. Indeed it is impossible. But it is another stick to keep public comment under control; another excuse to stop political dissent. One is immediately reminded of the Nazis burning books and the Soviets declaring certain art ‘unsuitable’.
Language is a rich resource of expression and communication. Literalism is the death of the creative element of language use. If the limits of the world are the limits of language as Wittgenstein claims then the world for the Chinese will be drastically shrunk by this new law. At the same time the law smacks of desperation.
A related topic is the curtain of censorship that the Chinese authorities have attempted to bridle the internet. Certain words and phrases are banned, and sites that are flagged are blocked by internet providers. One way around this obstacle for those wanting to declare their opinions has been to use wordplay and substitute characters. The richness of Mandarin allows people plenty of room to avoid censorship.
While the party knows the value of propaganda it doesn’t realise that history teaches us that draconian measures of self-preservation only serve to speed up the inevitable fall from power.
The example of wordplay below using the ‘zhou’ in the place name Whenzhou and replacing it with a homophone that means porridge. Thus, the sign sounds like ‘people from Zhenzhou’ but actually says ‘warm porridge people’.